Welcome to a New Rock Bottom: Stomach Flu With Your Kid

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Photo: Phanie Sarl/Corbis

Here’s something that you don’t often hear people admit: I’m not a natural caregiver. I didn’t come into life knowing how to take care of myself, let alone anyone else. I was well into my 20s before I could handle a minor cold; I was felled for hours by a hangover. Surely there was some other class of people — the caregivers — who were born with thermometer hands and first-aid kits, jars of salve, and eucalyptus vapor drops in the medicine cabinet, but I was not one of them. It took me a long time to realize we all learn on the job, usually in moments of desperation.

I spent the first six months of Zelda’s life fearing the germs of other people, of inanimate objects. I feared minor scrapes and bumps. Then, when she finally did catch that inevitable first cold, it was a terrifying affair that disturbed our home, night and day, for nearly two weeks. The doctors were caring but nonchalant: Her lungs were clear, nothing to worry about. I learned, in these weeks of lying awake at night, Googling horrific illnesses that my daughter did not have, several facts that have helped me with each successive minor ailment. They are:

(1) The cough always lasts at least a week longer than you think it should.

(2) It usually sounds worse to you than it does to a stethoscope.

(3) Shockingly, fevers aren’t usually any cause for concern, even when they’re high, like 102, 103 high. The kind of fever I would have assumed called for a trip to the ER is, in fact, often nothing to worry about in a baby.

If I can learn this, anyone can. But the downside of learning all this in such a short time is that it can make you feel a little too confident. Because if it’s bad news when the baby is sick, it’s worse when you’re sick, too. And your husband is out of town. And there’s a blizzard on the way.

***

Last week started normally, the three of us on the couch watching Frozen on Sunday night: Cool Mom reading Joan Didion, baby Zel mouthing a word of the movie every now and then, Dad saying, “She seems hot to me. Does she feel hot? Check her forehead.” She didn’t feel hot to me and I assured him she was fine. She was fine!

On Monday, she woke up happy as ever, though clearly showing the signs of an oncoming cold: snot dripping, phlegmy cough. I checked her temperature — a nice low 101. Nothing to worry about! We spent all day playing; we went to the grocery store. No one was worried, no one felt sick. The next morning, her fever just under 99 degrees, I called her doctor just to be sure it was okay to send her to school. “Of course, of course.”

In the meantime, I started to get sick.

She happily coughed her way through Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Her fever was completely gone. Her cough sounded terrible, it was true, but when has a cough ever sounded good? She was totally unfazed, she was her zippy self, running around naked, playing her piano. On Friday morning, I took her, with her baby doll and her lunch box, to school. I was unprepared for what happened next.

Did I mention I was getting sick? At first I thought I had a minor cold to match my daughter’s, but by early Friday afternoon, I was feeling distinctly bad: eyes burning, throat sore. To make matters worse, my husband was now in California, I was set to start a new job the next day, and there was a historic blizzard on the way. Oh, and our new nanny — the person we chose to care for our daughter while we were both working — was set to begin the next morning.

I wanted to crawl into bed, but that’s rarely an option when you’re a parent. So I turned to the next best thing: denial. I went to the doctor and got medication, and by the time her school called on Friday to tell me Zelda had a fever of 102.5, I’d convinced myself I was on the mend. On my way to pick her up, I made an appointment with her pediatrician and we drove straight over. Zelda projectile vomited all over herself in the car, causing uncontrollable sobbing in both the front seat and the back.

The doctor saw her just moments later, and already she was back to her old self. She giggled when he touched her. “Show the symptoms!” I joked. He assured me her lungs were clear; she didn’t even have a fever. The vomit could have been caused by the phlegm in her stomach or the fever, he said. We drove home reassured. Within an hour, she was projectile vomiting again, this time all over me and the living-room floor, the strains of “Let It Go” in the background.

Looking at the apocalyptic weather forecast, I called the doctor. “I just desperately need her to not throw up more,” I said, thinking of an ER trip in a blizzard, of an ambulance unable to rescue us. “This seems like a completely different illness than what we were dealing with even four hours ago.” Zelda had only ever thrown up once before, but not like this. This was violent and sad and seemed dangerous.

The on-call doctor calmly assured me it wasn’t dangerous and walked me through the truly tedious steps of “rehydrating” a toddler who is vomiting or has diarrhea. “No, thank god, no diarrhea,” I said happily, one bright spot in the abyss.

Two teaspoons of water or Pedialyte every five minutes for an hour. After that, half an ounce for another hour. This isn’t to quench thirst or even to test her stomach, it’s merely to get her body to absorb small amounts of fluid to stave off dehydration, which, the doctor assured me, was the only cause for concern. “Don’t worry about the fever,” she said — did I mention the fever? The fever was back; it was 101. Successfully rehydrated after three hours, my daughter went to bed happily around 9:15 p.m., the latest she’d ever stayed up, after watching Frozen all the way through twice.

As for me, I woke up at 1 a.m. and threw up everything in my stomach. I had a fever. I was freezing cold and sweating. My stomach churned every time I took a sip of water. I opened the blinds to see a truly horrifying amount of snow falling. I lay down and Googled various mortal illnesses, briefly convincing myself we might both have meningitis. I passed out, woke up, heard my daughter coughing sadly on the baby monitor. I passed out again

Zelda woke up happy on Saturday morning after 11 hours of sleep. I woke up feeling horrible, but was so overjoyed at her sudden upswing that I tried to pretend otherwise. We continued the Pedialyte scheme: a few teaspoons, then half an ounce, every few minutes for two hours. I called the doctor to check in. She told me not to worry if Zelda didn’t seem interested in food; just keep hydrating her. Meanwhile, I avoided throwing up only by eating absolutely nothing. The blizzard ended with no emergencies at our house, and on Sunday afternoon we went to the public library. She got two books about goldfish, I got Chelsea Girls. Her father arrived back home after days away late that afternoon. We were on the mend.

One of the dozen or so times I called the doctor that weekend, she’d warned me that the stomach flu sometimes seems to end, then suddenly reappears. We awoke at 4:30 a.m. to the unmistakable sound of Zelda vomiting unhappily, screaming in her crib. It was an all-hands affair, maneuvering in the dark, me struggling to stay upright, angrily stripping the bed while my husband stripped an unhappy but quickly recovering toddler. That’s another fact: As soon as a kid throws up, they almost immediately turn into some only slightly less normal version of themselves. It’s reassuring, but it’s rough when you feel like shit yourself and your toddler is suddenly requesting you sing “ABC” at 5 a.m.

I gave my husband the rehydrating instructions and went back to bed, grateful he was there, assuring him her condition was not serious (I ignored the irrational voice in my head screaming “demand lab tests!”). I can’t stress this enough: I felt like I personally might be at the end of the line. I slept fitfully and was awakened at 9 a.m.: “Laura, I need you, she’s throwing up again.”

I got up for the day, absolutely certain now that our brand-new nanny was going to quit immediately. This was the weekend I was planning on “acclimating” her to Zelda’s weekday “schedule” so that things were ready for me to start my new job on Monday, and here we were, barely clothed, walking dead, no one eating. We were the messiest mess we’d ever been, all of my motherhood confidence deflated in the space of two days. But the nanny performed better than anyone could be expected to under such circumstances. And so far, she’s still here.

***

Other than the part when my daughter had diarrhea, and barely ate for the next week, and the part when I went back to the doctor and was diagnosed with an ear infection as well as a sinus infection, that was about the end of it. And we’re no worse for wear, really. My daughter has developed a lasting obsession with Pedialyte (salty sugar water). And on Sunday night, just before bed, a toenail on her adorable left foot fell off, a final “fuck you” from the hand, foot, and mouth disease (don’t ask) she briefly suffered from in December.

But that night she slept soundly, and in the morning requested a smoothie, surely the best sign yet that she was feeling like herself. “Moothsie,” she said. She switches up those letters in the cutest way. “That’s so Zelda,” I said to her, opening the blinds. “Sunny!” she exclaimed. She got her Moothsie, I had my first coffee in almost a week, and we closed off this chapter a little humbler than before. “I don’t know everything, after all,” I said to Zelda, then added to myself, “but I can hydrate the shit out of a toddler.”

A New Rock Bottom: Stomach Flu With Your Kid